Story updated 21 March* (the story has been updated in line with corrections made to the survey report)
Over a quarter of social workers across England experienced racism from people they worked with over a 12-month period, a survey of almost 2,000 practitioners has found.
Almost one in ten (9%) said they had experienced racism from colleagues or managers at least five times in the previous 12 months, a figure that rose to 31% among black social workers and 28% among Asian respondents.
One in five respondents reported having increased anxiety and 13% worsened mental health, as a result of experiencing racism, while one in 10 had considered leaving their jobs and 8% leaving the profession altogether.
While less than one in five (18%) disagreed that their organisation was doing enough to address racism, 34% of Asian and 40% of black respondents felt this way.
The findings come from a survey of 1,958 social workers carried out last summer for sector coalition the Anti-Racism Steering Group, and were published yesterday by group member What Works for Children’s Social Care (WWCSC).
‘We must become more anti-racist profession’
“The results paint a picture of widespread racism that has a serious impact on people’s mental health and career progression,” said Anna Bacchoo, WWCSC’s director of practice.
“We must work across organisations and agencies to become a more anti-racist profession,” said Bacchoo.
In response, the British Association of Social Workers said the findings demonstrated the “institutional and systemic racism inherent within social care”. It said that yesterday’s report removed the excuse of lack of data for inaction on tackling “a blight on our profession”.
The survey was designed to uncover the extent of racism experienced or witnessed by practitioners in England – both within the workplace and in practice with adults, children and families – and the impact of this on them and their careers.
Key survey findings
- 28% of social workers said they had experienced racism from colleagues or managers at least once in the previous year.
- 9% of social workers said they had experienced racism from colleagues or managers at least five times in the previous year, with 31% of black practitioners and 28% of Asian professionals reporting the same.
- 37% reported experiencing racism from service users or families at least once in the previous 12 months.
- 58% witnessed colleagues experiencing racism from service users or families, and 42% witnessed fellow staff experiencing racism from other colleagues or managers at least once in the previous year.
- 19% said their experience of racism had increased their anxiety, while 13% said their mental health had worsened as a result.
- 5% had left their jobs because of their experience of racism, while 10% had considered doing so and 8% had considered leaving the profession altogether.
- 10% said their career progression had been limited because of racism.
- While 18% disagreed that their organisation was doing enough to address racism, this rose to 34% among Asian and 39% among black respondents.
‘Overloaded and then criticised for underperforming’
A minority of respondents (112) described the racism they experienced or witnessed. This included social workers from ethnic minorities – particularly black practitioners – having both higher workloads and increased scrutiny of, and negative assumptions, about their skills.
One practitioner said that black social workers were “overloaded and then criticised for underperforming”. Another said that, as a black social worker, they had been allocated more complex cases than a white counterpart and had “had to work ten times harder to prove that I am more than capable to execute my duties”.
Overall, 10% of respondents said their career progression had been limited because of racism.
“Black colleagues have been rejected for promotion when they appear to have as much or more experience than White colleagues who have been promoted,” one respondent said.
Respondents also detailed incidents of overt racial abuse and discrimination, both from individuals and families using services and colleagues. Several mentioned incidents of individuals requesting new social workers due to their allocated practitioner’s ethnicity or religious beliefs.
Within the workplace, several also noted a lack of acknowledgement of the increased risks to certain ethnic groups from Covid-19 in managers’ decision-making.
Among the 54 respondents who wrote about the impact of the racism they had experienced, several described changing teams, or even exiting the workforce as a result, leading to financial difficulties.
In terms of organisational responses to racism, respondents “repeatedly” referred to inadequate HR policies and the need for more robust reporting processes. One cited the absence of an anonymous reporting mechanism and another questioned why reporting systems were not promoted within their organisation.
Some respondents also felt that policies were “tokenistic ‘tick-box’ exercises which were “worthless” and “for show only”, the report said.
Of 64 respondents who set out their hopes for how the profession should address racism, ideas included having an independent body for tackling racism, local authorities being held to account for failures to address racism and embedding anti-racist practice in Social Work England’s professional standards. These have previously been criticised by the British Association of Social Workers for not referencing anti-racist practice.
‘Imperative’ that findings lead to change
Steering group member the Principal Children and Families Social Worker Network said the survey results showed that awareness raising about racism within social work was not enough.
“Therefore, it is imperative that the findings from this report are used to drive forward sector change,” said network co-chairs Sharon Davidson and Farrah Khan. “As a network, we will play a key role in driving this change, as tackling racism needs a sector-wide, collaborative approach.”
BASW said it received “disturbing accounts of the racism and discrimination suffered by our members” on a daily basis, and that the profession now needed to act, given the survey findings.
“For far too long, a lack of data has been used to justify the often stagnant approach to anti-racism efforts within social work settings. Now, this report challenges any such excuse, which was unacceptable to begin with. The sector now must move onto doing and implementation, rather than tokenism, platitudes or waiting for the next report. We call for meaningful action plans, investment in training and dedicated anti-racism roles, and culture change within organisations to tackle this head-on.”
‘Much more to do’
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services said the report “highlights how much more there is to do in improving anti-racist practice and to create a truly inclusive environment for the whole of our workforce”.
Workforce development policy committee chair Rachael Wardell said there was positive work going on to improve diversity. This included the 18 local authorities testing the workforce race equality standards (WRES) – designed to tackle racial inequalities in the workforce – and The Staff College’s Black and Asian Leadership Initiative (BALI), designed to support managers make the leap into senior leadership.
“However, there is much more that individual organisations can do to embed anti-racist practice and make change happen,” she added. “We must improve the experiences of people in the workforce from all backgrounds who experience discrimination. This will require a collective effort and must span the entirety of someone’s career, from training, to good CPD, through to progression opportunities.
“It’s vitally important that our workforce reflects local communities and that the children we work with see that a career in children’s services is not beyond their reach, yet there are not enough black and other ethnic minority directors across the country. Supporting anyone who is working in children’s services to progress to senior and leadership roles, if they want to, continues to be a priority for local authorities and the Association. We each have a responsibility to stand up for change and to challenge ourselves and each other to do more if we are to achieve a fairer, more tolerant and equal society.”
About the survey and respondents
The survey was developed by the Anti-Racist Steering Group, which comprises representatives from the adults’ and children’s principal social worker networks, Social Work England, the Department for Education, Department of Health and Social Care and What Works for Children’s Social Care. WWCSC researchers checked the questions, which were a combination of multiple-choice and textbox, for clarity and validity.
The online survey ran for two months in summer 2021, and was promoted to 81,000 social workers (out of a registered population of just under 100,000) by Social Work England. The respondents represented 2% of that population.
The proportions of Asian (4%), black (11%) and mixed respondents (4%) were similar to that of the statutory children’s social work population as of 2020. However, while 78% of that workforce was white, 41% of survey respondents were white, with a further 38% not reporting their ethnicity. The latter group reported higher levels of racism than white respondents, with 42% reporting at least one racist experience from a colleague or manager in the past year, compared with 13% of the white group.
Additional reporting by Rob Preston and Mithran Samuel